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From One Airplane, Many Opportunities

Small business owners, whose livelihoods depend on maximizing their limited time and resources, are always looking for tools that can help them expand their markets and increase their efficiency.

For Paul Stafford, a commercial real estate investment specialist based in Missoula, MT, that tool is a 1998 Malibu Mirage. He uses the single-engine, piston-powered airplane to extend the reach of his real estate practice as far as Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

A life-long aviation enthusiast, Stafford has been flying since his college days in the late 1970s, first in gliders, later in rented aerobatic aircraft, then in a kit airplane that he built himself.

After just a couple of years working in commercial real estate, Stafford realized that buying a share in a general aviation (GA) airplane could pay dividends for his business venture. “Probably 95 percent of my flying is for business purposes,” he said.

Stafford’s firm is Pentad Properties, an NBAA Member Company headquartered in Salt Lake City that specializes in office and retail properties. The business is small, having only a dozen brokers.

“We’re small, but nimble,” says Stafford, alluding to the competitive edge that his airplane gives him. “I don’t know any other brokers that work the way I do and have the reach that I do. The airplane enables me to service a greater region, and it helps increase the volume of my business.”

Doing the Research, Then Inspecting the Site

Working primarily with a laptop computer and cell phone from a home-based office, Stafford researches potential investment properties, carefully noting their demographics and growth potential. After performing due diligence on a property, he picks up a real estate investor or developer and flies to the site for a day or two, interviews potential property managers and visits with city and county government offices to ensure that the properties and their planned use conform to local zoning regulations.

“Very often the properties we are looking at are in emerging markets, where there is little or no commercial air service,” explained Stafford, “and yet those are often markets with rising populations and job growth, and they typically end up being very good investments. The small airports that serve those communities are ideal for me. We can be on-site in very short order.

“We often need an entire business day in a market if we’re searching for sites,” continued Stafford. “We don’t want to arrive at noon or 1:00 p.m. via airline and only have a few hours of daylight to view sites.”

Being able to leave at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. and arrive by 10:00 a.m. in a business aircraft usually enables Stafford and his clients to get all their work done in a single day and leave at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., thus avoiding overnight stays.

When multi-day trips are necessary, Stafford’s airplane allows him to keep to a highly efficient schedule. For example, last spring a busy real estate developer from St. George, UT, asked Stafford to help investigate four different markets: Flagstaff and Yuma, AZ; Albuquerque, NM; and Reno, NV.

“I picked him and his assistant up in St. George at 8:00 a.m. on the first day,” recalled Stafford. “We arrived in Flagstaff at 9:00 a.m. and spent the entire day in that market. The next day, we departed Flagstaff at 8:00 a.m. and flew to Albuquerque and were on the ground by 9:30. During the entire week-long trip, we were able to spend about eight hours in each market and travel on our own schedule. It was cost-effective and time-effective. I was able to return the developer to his office on Friday afternoon, and I was home in time for dinner.”

Teaching Others the Tools of the Trade

Having access to a business airplane also has enabled Stafford to teach a course in commercial property investing to real estate attorneys and certified public accountants all over Montana, something that would not be possible if he had to traverse the country’s fourth-largest state by any other mode of transportation.

For instance, a trip from Missoula to Billings is a seven-hour drive, but only an 80-minute flight in the Malibu. By flying himself between Montana’s far-flung cities, Stafford is able to arrive before noon, teach his course and return to his own office with enough time left in the workday to get other tasks done.

And teaching the course gives him great visibility with real-estate law specialists. “Anybody who is self-employed had better be spending some time on business development: It’s all about keeping your pipeline full,” declared Stafford. “While my web site brings in a reasonable number of clients, being able to reach out to other professionals in my line of work gets my name and expertise in front of them.”

All of these missions could have been accomplished in a variety of business aircraft, so why did Stafford opt for a Malibu? “It’s an all-weather airplane that cruises at about 200 knots and has a 25,000-foot ceiling, so it can fly above most weather, and the pressurization enables me to arrive refreshed,” he said.

Stafford also likes the Piper’s low fuel consumption rate of about 20 gallons per hour, which helps keep his direct operating costs under $200 per hour.

Living in Montana, icing is a potential problem three to five months a year. Even though Stafford undergoes yearly recurrent training in the Malibu, he does not hesitate to defer a trip if conditions look challenging.

Nurturing Grassroots Aviation

Because business aviation has afforded Stafford many opportunities, he feels it is important to be an advocate for the industry on both local and national issues.

About two years ago, Stafford joined Missoula International Airport’s (MSO’s) governing board, becoming the first pilot to serve the organization. He has not only provided technical aviation expertise to the group, which is composed primarily of local businessmen, but he also was instrumental in getting a resolution adopted that affirms MSO’s commitment to support and promote general aviation.


“ Stafford applauded the work NBAA is doing to defeat user fees, and said he would continue to look to the Association for representation. ”

Stafford is particularly proud of his efforts to improve onerous lease arrangements that had stifled general aviation development at the airport, and he is hopeful that during the next building season, construction of new GA infrastructure will begin.

At the national level, Stafford also has joined the fight against user fees, currently being waged in Congress as a part of the debate over reauthorization (or funding) for the Federal Aviation Administration. When one of Montana’s U.S. senators was home in Helena, Stafford was able to fly there to speak directly with the senator and tell him how the user fees proposed by the airlines would adversely affect the many businesses in the state that rely on general aviation.

In a separate, hour-long, follow-up meeting with one of the senator’s aides in Missoula, Stafford was able to rebut the airlines’ arguments for user fees and educate the staffer on how the air traffic control system works.

“The user fee proposal really is the camel’s nose under the tent,” declared Stafford. “Canada started off with what sounded like a benign system for general aviation, where only a fraction of the fleet was going to be affected. Within a few years everybody was paying fees. I don’t want to see this aviation system funding model put in place – it would kill general aviation.”

Stafford applauded the work NBAA is doing to defeat user fees, and said he would continue to look to the Association for representation in other aspects of his business.

For example, he noted that he would like to see NBAA continue to provide information on the economics of aircraft operations, especially guidance on tax issues. He also wants to learn more about creative ways to finance aircraft and offset or minimize the expense of flying.

Stafford said he especially liked what he’d heard about NBAA’s plans to increasingly offer these and other business resources online, for review at his convenience. “After all, most of the time, I’m out of the office, airborne and looking for the next great investment property,” he said.